Over the course of three days, I had three conversations with three different two-time winners of the U.S. Open. Andy North (1978 and ‘85) on the Saturday of Erin Hills, Curtis Strange (‘88 and ’89) on Father’s Day and Lee Janzen (’93 and ’98) the day after that. In different ways, each said the same thing: the identity of our national championship was undergoing a revolution, because of the game’s equipment, the size and strength of the players using it and because of some of the courses the USGA had selected for the U.S. Open.
“The players are terrific,” Janzen told me, while we were waiting in a line for Wolfgang Puck pizza at O’Hare. “But they think hitting a 290-yard three-wood that stops on the green is a finesse shot.” That is a finesse shot today, Janzen says, with the modern ball, woods made of metal and golfers who swing north of 115 miles per hour. But it doesn’t make the game more interesting.
Later, by text, I tried out my new idea on him: the Major Ball. A ball that would be used in the four men’s professional majors—the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, the PGA Championship—and at no other time.
There’s nothing wrong with the modern game or the equipment being used, for us, playing in after-work nine-hole leagues, and for them, playing 72-hole Tour events. The Travelers Championship in Hartford, won with a Jordan Spieth hole-out last week, was wildly entertaining, and far more interesting than the U.S. Open the week before it. The course was short (6,800 yards), the scores were low (12 under played off), but the crowds were massive, the field was excellent and the sports-as-theater tension was real.
What is threatened by the modern golfer playing modern equipment is the sanctity and the identity of the four men’s majors. There’s talk of lengthening the iconic 13th hole at Augusta National, so that it continues to be a meaningful risk-reward par-5. The course itself, with all the lengthening and tree-planting over the years, has lost its singular identity, as a sui generis inland links, over the past 30 years. The U.S. Open at Erin Hills, even when the course measured in the vicinity of 7,800 yards, played short. When British Opens are played on parched courses and windless conditions, players club the courses to death with irons off the tee.
My proposal: The best minds at Augusta National, the USGA, the R&A and the PGA of America working with the top golf-ball manufacturers to produce a ball that would be used only in the majors. Maybe it would be a wound balata ball, I wouldn’t pretend to know, but the basic goal can be easily stated: it maxes out at about 300 yards. That’s it. The nutted three-wood in still conditions would max out at about 260.
The game’s longest hitters—Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Bubba Watson, Jon Rahm—would still enjoy all the benefits they still do. Everybody would be scaled down from his normal lengths. But a shorter-flying ball would mean courses where a 570-yard par-5 is unreachable and a 470-yard par-4 might actually require a driver and a 4-iron. Traditional and important notion of par for the hole would be preserved. The universal meaning of scores in the 60s—”you played your butt off”—would be preserved. Shorter and historic courses would not become obsolete. Play would be faster.
And the status of the four majors would be increased. Ultimately, the majors get their status from the players. They are the events the players most want to win because of what victory does for their own status within their peer group. Each of the four majors needs to preserve and enhance its identity or they will lose their cache. To win a major with the Major Ball would require more skill, in part because the player would have to adjust to the different ball, but mostly because hitting a driver in play to a tight fairway would become more meaningful, no 290-yard three-wood shots would stop on the green and the finesse shot would again become the 30-yard pitch over a trap to a short pin from a gnarly lie.
Nick Price said this repeatedly at the dawn of the Tiger Era. If you want to bunch the fields—if you want a variety of golfing styles to be able to compete—you don’t lengthen the course. You shorten it. You shorten it and you make it narrower. Justin Rose won the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, a par-70, in one over for the week. That’s the essence of the game. He found a way, using the 14 clubs the rules allow him to carry, to navigate 28,000 yards of uneven terrain over four days in 281 strokes. He was rewarded for his precision, for his thinking, for his execution. Brooks Koepka played magnificently and he did what Erin Hills required him to do. It just didn’t demand as much.
Lee Janzen seemed to like the idea of the Major Ball, as long as different manufacturers could be represented. In other words, not Major League Baseball, where the umpire gives a Rawlings to the pitcher and that’s the ball in play. Titleist, Bridgestone, Callaway, TaylorMade, the others—each can produce its own Major Ball under the manufacturing requirements. But the goal is clear.
“I think dialing the ball back is a good idea,” Janzen said. He’s not the only one.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]